Katharine Furse

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Dame Katharine Furse
Katherine Furse, by Glyn Philpot.jpg
Katharine Furse (Glyn Philpot, 1920)
Born(1875-11-23)23 November 1875
Bristol, England
Died25 November 1952(1952-11-25) (aged 77)
London, England
AllegianceUnited Kingdom
Service/branchWomen's Royal Naval Service
Commands heldWomen's Royal Naval Service (1917–19)
Battles/warsFirst World War
AwardsDame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire
Royal Red Cross
Charles Wellington Furse
(m. 1900; died 1904)
RelationsJohn Addington Symonds (father)
Marianne North (aunt)
Other workDirector of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (1928–38)

Dame Katharine Furse, GBE, RRC (née Symonds; 23 November 1875 – 25 November 1952) was a British nursing and military administrator. She led the British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment force during the First World War, and served as the inaugural Director of the Women's Royal Naval Service (1917–19). Furse was also the first Director of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (1928–38).

Early life and family[edit]

Furse was born in Bristol, England, on 23 November 1875, the daughter of poet and critic John Addington Symonds and Janet Catherine North. Her aunt was the painter Marianne North. Educated by governesses and her mother, Furse spent most of her early life in Switzerland and Italy. In 1900 she married the painter Charles Wellington Furse, who died four years later leaving her with two young children.

Military career[edit]

In 1909 Furse joined the British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment attached to the Territorial Army. On the outbreak of the First World War she was chosen to head the first Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) unit to be sent to France. Aware of her administrative abilities, the authorities decided to place her in charge of the VAD Department in London.[1]

Furse realised that the existing number of nurses would prove totally inadequate to deal with the enormous amount of work which might be expected, and in September 1914 she proceeded to France with a number of assistants, these forming the nucleus of the VAD force. In January 1915 she returned to England, and the VAD work was then officially recognised as a department of the Red Cross organisation. She received the Royal Red Cross in 1916, and was appointed a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire in June 1917.[2] Although she considered it a great success being head of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, Furse was unhappy about her lack of power to introduce reforms. In November 1917, she and several of her senior colleagues resigned due to a dispute over the living conditions of the VAD volunteers and the Red Cross refusal to co-ordinate with the Woman's Army group.[3] [4]

Furse was immediately offered the post as director of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), this was equivalent to the rank of rear admiral.[5] The Royal Navy was the first of the armed forces to recruit women and since 1916 the Women's Royal Naval Service took over the role of cooks, clerks, wireless telegraphists, code experts and electricians.[4] The women were so successful that other organisations such as the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the Royal Air Force; the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) were also established.


After the war, Furse joined the travel agency of Sir Henry Lunn (later known as Lunn Polly). Working mainly in Switzerland, she became an expert skier and did a great deal to popularise the sport with British tourists.[5] Her achievements were acknowledged when she became President of the Ladies' Ski Club.[1]

In 1920, Furse formed the Association of Wrens and this led to her becoming head of the Sea Rangers (formerly known as the Sea Guides),[5] and for ten years, from 1928 to 1938, was director of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts,[5] whose constitution she drafted.[6] Furse's autobiography, Hearts and Pomegranates, was published in 1940.[7] Her last public appearance was at the Conference of Former Scouts in London in September 1952. Furse died in London, two days after her 77th birthday and two months after her last public appearance.[8]


  1. ^ a b "Dame Katharine Furse (1875–1952), Nurse and nursing administrator; director of the Women's Royal Naval Service". npg.org.uk. Retrieved 24 November 2017.
  2. ^ Ursula Stuart Mason BritanniaÍs Daughters, p. 7, at Google Books
  3. ^ Peter Stansky -The Worlds of Philip and Sybil, p. 84, at Google Books
  4. ^ a b Archives, The National (29 November 2017). "The National Archives - Domestic duties only? WRNS and the First World War". The National Archives blog. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
  5. ^ a b c d William Stewart Admirals of the World: A Biographical Dictionary, 1500 to the Present, p. 137, at Google Books
  6. ^ Tammy M. Proctor Scouting for Girls: A Century of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, p. 70, at Google Books
  7. ^ Cathy Hartley A Historical Dictionary of British Women at Google Books
  8. ^ "Director Dame Katharine Furse nee Symonds". livesofthefirstworldwar.org. Retrieved 24 November 2017.

External links[edit]

World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts
New title World Association Director
Succeeded by
Arethusa Leigh-White